City Paper is not for tourists
This past week, the National Football League spent in excess of $10 million on its 2003 Kickoff Live festival on the National Mall, promoting the opening of the pro football season. But the league didn’t spend a cent on Dennis Foster.
“We got screwed,” says Foster. “Absolutely screwed.”
Foster, who is homeless, spent two days working at Kickoff Live, a three-day event featuring food, games, and celebrity appearances. Organizers recruited about 200 volunteers to staff the eventincluding about a dozen homeless men and women from a downtown social-services center.
In exchange for their unpaid efforts, participants were supposed to get perks: They were told that for working one four-hour shift, they would receive a free T-shirt; for each additional shift, they would earn a VIP pass to Thursday night’s concert in front of the Capitol, which featured numerous celebrities, including Britney Spears, Aerosmith, and Mary J. Blige.
But Foster and many other volunteers never got the promised goods. “This is the NFL,” says Foster. “These people have tons of money and they can’t give us a T-shirt? They’re taking advantage of us homeless folks.”
Foster first heard about Kickoff Live from James Rodgers, an advocate for the homeless, who works at the Downtown Services Center on G Street NW. After talking to Rodgers, Foster filled out an application for the volunteer position.
Shortly thereafter, Party Planners West, a group contracted by the NFL to arrange logistics for the festival, welcomed Foster into the fold. Foster received a letter, dated Sept. 4, laying out his schedule for the week. He was supposed to work three shiftsone on Monday, one on Tuesday, and one on Wednesday. If everything had gone according to plan, he would have received the T-shirt and two passes to VIP seating at the free concert.
On his first day, Foster was assigned to work the Quick Release: a game where wannabe quarterbacks hurl footballs at a net and receive credit for accuracy and velocity. “It was kind of fun,” says Foster. “All the kids were having a really good time. That made me happy to be a part of.”
While on the job, Foster decided to volunteer for more. He liked the work, and the more shifts he put in, the more friends he could invite to the concert. He signed up for a double shift for the next day.
On Tuesday, Foster showed up at the volunteer tent to receive his new assignment. Staff members told him that he would be returning to the Quick Release. His presence there had been specifically requested by the paid personnel.
“I took that as a compliment,” says Foster. “It felt good.”
Foster worked eight hours on Tuesday and signed up for another double shift for the final day, Wednesday. But when Foster showed up at the staff entry gate off Madison Drive that day around 11:30 a.m., he was told that the activities had been canceled due to bad weather and that he should go home.
Before leaving, Foster wanted to check in one last time with the volunteer coordinators in case they needed any extra help. He asked the security guards at the gate if he could go in and talk to his supervisor at the volunteer tent. After all, he still had to pick up his T-shirt and VIP passes.
The security guards denied his request.
By this time, a crowd of volunteers had gathered. Staff members had already distributed freebies to some volunteers at the end of the day on Monday and Tuesday. But those, like Foster, who had worked in the morning or afternoon had expected to pick up the goods after their final shifts on Wednesday.
According to Foster, the security guards brushed off the volunteers’ concerns. “They told us that everythingthe T-shirts and [VIP passes]had been packed away, and that everyone had left for the day,” says Foster. “They told us, ‘We’re sorry, but there’s nothing we can do. If you have a problem, take it up with the NFL Commission.’”
All week, Foster had looked forward to being treated like a VIP. Now he felt like a reject.
“It sucks,” he says. “It feels like a slap in the face.”
Lillian Iversen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, who was hired by Party Planners West to coordinate the volunteer recruitment, says Foster is not alone. “Volunteers have a right to be upset,” says Iversen. “There was a definite breakdown in communication.”
Iversen says she wasn’t on hand for the Wednesday incident but received a call that morning from a disgruntled volunteer. “I don’t know exactly how the situation went,” she says. “I’m not sure who told them what, how they were told, in what sort of intonation. I tried to find a resolution to the situation that would be satisfactory to everybody. But, unfortunately, I did not get the results that I wanted.”
A representative of Party Planners West refers all questions to the corporate communications office of the NFL. Brian McCarthy, a spokesperson for the NFL, says he hadn’t heard of the complaints but would be willing to give out T-shirts to any unhappy volunteer willing to contact him directly. According to McCarthy, recruiting unpaid volunteers to staff NFL events is an honored tradition that has taken place at the previous 10 Super Bowls. “It’s what we’ve done traditionally in the past,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity for local people to get a taste of what it’s like to work at this type of event.”
A few hours before the concert begins, Foster sits in a room at the Downtown Services Center, steadfastly refusing to attend the concert, which is open to the public. Foster can still attend for free, if he desires. But now he doesn’t want to. After all, he worked the extra shifts to earn special passes to the private bleacher section. Without the necessary red wrist bands, he’ll have to stand in the mud with everyone else.
Foster also planned to take a date to the concertto impress her with his hard-earned perks. Now, he’s out of luck. “I’m too upset to go down there,” he says. “I might get angry and say something awful. I don’t want that.”
Rodgers, the advocate who helped recruit Foster and company for the NFL, says he shares in Foster’s disappointment. “I heard a few good reports from some of the volunteers,”says Rodgers. “But I heard more bad reports.
“It’s difficult sometimes, but we’re always trying to get people to trust the system,” adds Rodgers. “Something like this doesn’t help.”
Foster says that the NFL can keep the T-shirt it owes him and that all will be forgiven, if the organization will donate some money to the homeless shelters in D.C. “I don’t want nothing for myself,” says Foster. “They punished me enough. I just wish the NFL would show some support to the homeless people in D.C. That could be my paycheck.” CP